Epiphany 4: 31 January Luke 4:21-30
Last week we had the first part of Jesus’ appearance before his home synagogue (4:14-21). Now we read of the response. We recall that Luke is making this the all important introductory scene for the ministry to follow. Already he has included in it Jesus’ statement about his call and mission. Now he invites us to reflect on what is about to happen - both in the scene and in the ministry as a whole, indeed also in the ministry of the church in Acts.
The initial response is awe (4:22). The people were ‘amazed at the words of compassion’, which in the context must mean the citation from Isaiah, but Luke probably wants us to imagine that Jesus said more. Already by the end of verse 22 the initially positive response is becoming something else: ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ Luke is returning to the story he found in Mark 6:1-6, but mentions only Joseph, perhaps as deliberate irony.
The drive to fit people into categories has not evolved out of the human species. It belongs to intelligence, but it can also be the opposite: laziness and resistance in relation to the new. We lose 'knowledge-control' when the unfamiliar confronts us. ‘Jesus is just the boy from down the road.’ So people have to leave home, leave their local communities often, before they will be allowed to spread their wings.
Jesus had been spreading his wings in Capernaum according to 4:14-15, 23b, and doing some of the things that the borrowed mission statement from Isaiah 61 enumerated. Now he is back home. Mark states it baldly: with just a couple of minor exceptions he was not able to do any miracles in his local community (6:5). Luke has Jesus give a more expansive answer. Jesus himself second-guesses what they are thinking: why won’t he do for them the kind of miracles he did for Capernaum? It sounds like the kind of dispute between municipalities - which has also not been evolved out of the species.
This local rivalry disguises a larger meaning. First Jesus rubs it in, using a proverbial insight: prophets are not accepted in their homeland (4:24). Luke is happy to stay with ‘homeland’ and drop ‘kin and household’ (Mark 6:4), which would have suggested that Mary had begun to forget what she had been pondering in her heart. Instead Luke expands the reference to the prophets.
There were many widows in need in Israel, but Elijah was sent to the widow in Zarephath in Sidon, foreign territory, and similarly Elisha brought a cure to none of the lepers except Naaman, the Syrian. At the surface level this ought to make the synagogue crowd at Nazareth think again before complaining about Capernaum. Within the context of Luke’s gospel and Acts, and doubtless among most of Luke’s hearers, the surface dispute simply represents a much larger one or two much larger ones.
In the gospel Jesus shows how, after initial positive responses, the crowds turned against Jesus because he went outside of the respected in Israel and reached out to the sinners, toll collectors and outcasts (the parable of the great feast represents it in allegorical form: 14:16-24). Luke is arguing that such outreach incited anger and hatred and led to Jesus’ execution, prefigured here by the attempt to stone him (i.e. the common method of throwing people over a precipice and then dropping large rocks on them). In Acts we find a similar pattern. An initially positive response among the Jews leads to anger and hatred when the mission opens up to the Gentiles.
Luke is using the opening scene of Jesus’ ministry as the key to all that follows in both books, the Gospel and Acts. It is a reading of history which is by no means incontrovertible. A simple key is likely to lead to oversimplification and do injustice in the process. Luke’s church will have faced fierce competition from resurgent Judaism of the 80’s and had to grapple with the pain of its relative failure among Jews. One of the sub themes of both books is the attempt to help people to come to terms with this situation. We need to think carefully before adopting Luke’s thesis.
While the realities will have been more complex, the principles of human behaviour (including religious behaviour) which Luke enunciates are as relevant today as they were in his. People become possessive about truth and knowledge. When their knowledge power is threatened, they often become aggressive. This can include refusal to face new truth. It can include vilification of the other. Luke could have written similar things about Christian communities, had he known what we know about the history that followed. A different race, a different culture, a different setting - to those obsessed with protecting their own and fearful of change these are dangers to be avoided, enemies to be attacked.
At one level Luke’s message is simple and uncontroversial: if you join Jesus in living a life of compassion that is inclusive and without prejudice against the despised and feared, you will be living the life of the Spirit and you will be courting danger. If you start hating the sources of danger and thus dehumanising the enemy, you have become part of the problem, rather than part of its solution. The mission and message of Jesus according to Luke are about undermining the dehumanising categories wherever they have been applied (usually to people seen as threats). This is not about a naive denial of danger where it exists, but it is about living out the freedom that love brings so that people never lose their value, are never written off. That really is good news also in today’s world.